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A secret passage is a hidden doorway or tunnel that leads to another part of a building. It can be as simple as a door behind a bookcase that opens into a hidden room, or a tunnel that leads to another public room in the house. Secret passages can also lead from inside the house to an outlying building, and could be used for anything from preserving a sense of privacy to creating escape routes for slaves fleeing the southern United States on the Underground Railroad.
Many old homes have secret passages built into them. The entrance is almost always well hidden, and it is not unusual for new owners to have no idea the passages exist. One of the most popular ways of hiding the entrance to a secret passage is behind a bookcase attached to the door with hinges.
Sometimes the secret passage can be as simple as another room hidden away, big enough for an office or small enough that it is simply used as a safe place to store valuables. In other homes, the passage may be a tunnel that leads from one room to another, usually with a similarly hidden entrance at the opposite end. They may also be accessed by a trap door in the floor, which can then easily be covered with a rug. While existing homes can be modified to include a secret passage, many were installed at the time of construction.
There are numerous examples of buildings, homes, and castles that have contained secret passages. Some of the oldest examples of secret passages are in the Egyptian pyramids, where a vast array of tunnels cross beneath the tombs of the ancient pharaohs. More modern examples have been discovered in the Kremlin, and are thought to date back generations, when they were used by royal families as storage and escape routes.
Private homes also have had many uses for hidden rooms and tunnels, and installing a secret passage in the home in England has been common practice for centuries. In a country with a history of constant upheaval and civil wars, many homes were constructed with secret passages, should rival factions come calling or should war break out. During times of religious persecutions, a secret passage could be fashioned into an area to practice religion safely and in secret, or to hide members of the clergy. Secret passages have long been used to hide individuals from persecution, from slaves traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom in the United States to Jews escaping Nazi persecution in Europe.
When I lived on the campus of the state's oldest college, I heard stories about secret passageways that led from the main building to the college president's house three blocks away. Some of us would enter the building after hours and search for these secret passages. According to campus legend, they were created during the Civil War as escape routes if the campus were ever invaded by Yankee soldiers.
The closest I got was the discovery of a gaping hole under one of the oldest staircases in the original part of the main campus building. It had a skull and crossbones painted on a railing, and the stairs didn't extend into the space. I think someone with a ladder could have accessed that secret room, and it seemed large enough to be a tunnel entrance. I've also been to the college president's house, but we weren't allowed to do any snooping around there.
There's a new gift shop that just opened in a historical section of my town, and the owner discovered a secret passage last week. A local historian believes it was a secret room used to store illegal alcohol during Prohibition. There really isn't much in the way of valuable antiques, just some bottles from the late 1930s, after alcohol sales became legal again.
The owner is going to put some strong plexiglass in front of the secret door and let future customers look at the secret passageway in the back of the store.
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